At the end of last year, when I was writing about the 24-CD box set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings, I devoted one of my articles to his concerto repertoire. I suggested that, notwithstanding the complete absence of Frédéric Chopin from the entire collection, Richter’s comfort zone tended to begin around 1899 and proceed backwards in time. Nevertheless, he definitely took an interest in Sergei Prokofiev; and there was definitely much to enjoy in the recording of Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto included in the collection.
Actually, Richter’s Wikipedia page enumerates a generous number of twentieth-century composers. According to the author of that page, his repertoire included not only Bartók but also Karol Szymanowski, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten, and George Gershwin. Perhaps I spoke to soon in my previous assessment!
Still, those who were not skimming may have raised their eyebrows at the end of that list. Richter played Gershwin? I suspect that reactions will range from “Are you kidding me?” (or words to that effect) to “This I gotta hear!” Well, I am happy to announce that, as of this coming Friday, the opportunity will be at hand. Once again we have SWR>>music to thank.
As part of a project to release live concert recordings from the Schwetzingen Festival, SWR>>music has produced a CD of Richter playing two concertos with Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra at the 1993 festival. The second concerto on the album is Gershwin’s only piano concerto; and it is preceded by Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 103 (fifth, known as the “Egyptian”) concerto in F major. As usual, this album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.) There is even a photograph of Richter on the cover with more than a hint of a smile, a striking contrast to the photographs on his Wikipedia page!
By way of context, I should explain that I came to know Gershwin’s concerto through an old Columbia vinyl of Andre Kostelanetz conducting the New York Philharmonic and soloist Oscar Levant. I loved that recording for all the jazzy qualities that Levant knew so well and could elicit through his chemistry with Kostelanetz. It was a fun recording that had all of the sassy spirit of a “pops” experience without watering down any of the content. I even bought a copy of the score, through which I could appreciate the balance between fidelity to the marks on paper and fidelity to Gershwin’s spirit.
With that as background I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at how much of that chemistry emerged in the relationship between Richter and Eschenbach. Mind you, I doubt that Richter would ever have achieved the level of down-and-dirty jamming that I have experienced with, for example, Jean-Yves Thibaudet; but that does not necessarily signify, since Gershwin intended his concerto to be concert music, rather than improvised jazz. It is not hard to imagine the both Richter and Eschenbach had as much fun making this music as I had when listening to Levant and Kostelanetz.
That “fun factor” also percolated into the Saint-Saëns concerto. Imagining Richter playing any Saint-Saëns concerto, particularly Opus 103, is as much of a stretch as imagining him playing Gershwin. Nevertheless, he knows how to summon up the “Egyptian effects,” particularly in those double-octave passages in which the dynamic relationship between the lower and higher notes should convey the illusion of a single harmonic spectrum. Furthermore, the account of the “finale music” in the third movement is as much of a hoot as is any of Gershwin’s rhythmic eccentricities.
Make no mistake. This is not a “novelty album” for guess-what-this-is parlor games. This is a sincere approach to music that can only thrive when such sincerity is at stake. It will make you wish you had been at the 1993 Schwetzingen Festival itself.